Cozy up with these children’s books that focus on empathy and overcoming differences.

“The Ogress and the Orphans” (Image courtesy Algonquin Books)

In a season that celebrates peace on Earth and good will to all, now is the perfect time to share lessons about empathy, overcoming differences and working together.

Some of the best children’s books published in 2022 touch on these topics. This year, our suggested holiday reading list includes a selection of inspiring stories, from a girl who pushes the boundaries to follow her courageous (and forbidden) dream to a mapmaker on a fantastical voyage attempting to flee from social barriers.

With lively illustrations and quick-witted storytelling, these books are geared to entertain young and old alike.

“Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers” (Image courtesy Minedition)

“Loujain Dreams of Sunflowers” by Lina Alhathloul and Uma Mishra-Newbery, illustrated by Rebecca Green; Minedition; $18.99; ages 4-8.

Every morning, a little girl, Loujain, watches her father attach his wings and then fly over the countryside. She wants to see all the sights he describes (especially the sunflowers), but her dream faces a big obstacle; in her country, only boys are allowed to learn to fly. Eventually (after a compassionate conversation between her parents), her dad agrees to teach her to fly and Loujain’s dream becomes reality. There is a short, but informative biography of the real woman who inspired the book: Saudi human rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, who was imprisoned for daring to learn to drive a car. Co-written by Loujain al-Hathloul’s sister, Lina Alhathloul, the book has incredibly beautiful illustrations as well as a short letter to readers about summoning the courage to dream and create a better world.

“Eyes That Speak to the Stars” by Joanna Ho, illustrated by Dung Ho; HarperCollins; $18.99; ages 4-8.

When friends at school create a hurtful drawing of him, a young boy turns to his family for comfort and learns to love his heritage. Inspired by stories of his grandfather’s family, the boy recognizes his inner power and strength, and finds comfort in his father’s affirming words. This book is a lovely companion piece to the Palo Alto author‘s bestselling picture book, “Eyes That Kiss in the Corners.” While the previous title centered on female family members, this offering focuses on three generations of male relatives. The idea of “looking up” is a repeated textual and visual motif.

“The Ogress and the Orphans”by Kelly Barnhill; Algonquin Books; $19.95; ages 10-18.

In a small town that has fallen on hard times, the people put their faith in a dazzling new mayor who promises that “he alone can help” renew the town. Then the library burns down, and an orphan goes missing. Suspicion, encouraged by the mayor, focuses on a newly arrived ogress who lives on the edge of town. Readers (and the orphans themselves) know that the ogress is kind and helpful, but how can they convince people who refuse to listen? By an award-winning author, this book is about the importance of generosity and friendship in a community and a cautionary tale of how a town suffers when those qualities disappear.

“Millionaires for the Month” by Stacy McAnulty; Penguin Random House; $8.99; ages 8-12.

On a class trip to New York City, two boys find a wallet belonging to a social media billionaire. Before returning it to its owner, they take a $20 bill from the wallet, figuring it would never be missed, but they are mistaken. To teach the kids a lesson, the billionaire offers them a deal: a $20,000 college scholarship or slightly over $5 million cash that they have to spend within 30 days. What would you choose? The boys rent luxury cars, take their families to Disney World and (of course) spend thousands of dollars on video and in-app games. But the task of spending money quickly becomes a chore and then a huge problem as it changes their relationships with friends, families and each other. The book is fast-paced and funny, but also thought-provoking.

“The Last Mapmaker”. (Image courtesy Candlewick)

“The Last Mapmaker” by Christina Soontornvat; Candlewick; $17.99; ages 8-12.

This story about identity and integrity is as beautiful and intricate as the maps of old. As an assistant to her country’s most celebrated mapmaker, 12-year-old Sai plays the part of a well-bred young lady with a glittering future. In reality, her father is a con man and in a kingdom where the status of one’s ancestors dictates their social position, the truth could ruin her. She seizes the chance to join an expedition to chart the southern seas, but she isn’t the only one aboard with secrets. When she realizes that the ship might be heading for a fabled place full of riches, but also dragons and other dangers, she has to weigh the consequences of her lies. The book is suspenseful and thought-provoking.

“Katie the Catsitter: Best Friends for Never” by Colleen AF Venable, illustrated by Stephanie Yue; Random House Books for Young Readers; $12.99; ages 8-12.

This extremely engaging graphic novel series is based on a girl who, in the first book, was cat-sitting for her neighbor while also on a hunt for an arch-villain. In the new book, someone is impersonating the villain, and all of Katie’s friends seem to be moving on from her. Like the first book, this pairs realistic issues (friends growing apart) with suspense over a new crime wave. Oh, and did I mention there are a lot of cats? Laughter guaranteed.

“Key Player” by Kelly Yang; Scholastic; $17.99; ages 8-12.

The fourth book in the wonderful “Front Desk” series, this follows Mia Tang, the child of immigrants who manage a motel near San Diego. Mia tries to get a scholarship to attend a summer camp for aspiring journalists, but first she has to raise her grade in (of all things) PE class. Luckily for her, the 1999 World Cup between the U.S. and Chinese women’s soccer teams is being played at the Rose Bowl in Southern California. Can Mia raise her grade by getting an interview with the players from both the U.S. and the Chinese teams? This series is a wonderful exploration of the complicated issues of identity and immigration, and a great reminder of how important that 1999 World Cup competition was for women’s sports.

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